The death of long-standing Russian dictator Joseph Stalin on 5 March 1953 created a moment of crisis for the authoritarian, “Communist” system that he had created.
In State Funeral, acclaimed Ukrainian documentary maker Sergei Loznitsa brings together an extraordinary array of archive footage, much of which has never been seen before. The result is a truly astonishing film that provides the viewer with fascinating insights into both Stalin’s regime and the response of ordinary people to his death.
The state funeral of Ioseb Besarionis dzе Jughashvili, to give Stalin his Georgian birth name, lasted some three days. His open casket was placed in the Hall of Trade Unions in Moscow from 6 to 8 March, where innumerable thousands of people filed past his coffin. On 9 March, his body was taken to Red Square, where it would be interred alongside the embalmed corpse of Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin.
Such were the numbers of people involved, many were crushed to death in the Moscow crowds. Some years later, Stalin’s successor Nikita Khrushchev estimated that 109 people were killed in the crushes. Other sources suggest that the death toll could have been in the thousands.
The state funeral for Lenin in 1924, which was orchestrated by Stalin, went against Lenin’s wishes. By contrast, Stalin’s funeral was entirely in line with the personality cult that had characterised his 30-year rule. From the late 1920s, he built up a deeply repressive state capitalist regime, heading up a counter-revolution against the gains of the 1917 Russian Revolution.
Running to two hours and 15 minutes, State Funeral contains no narration. Loznitsa prefers to knit together the archive film, allowing us, the viewers, to negotiate the sheer scale and the unremitting propaganda of the state orchestrated mourning.
The queues of people shuffling along the streets of Moscow to see Stalin lying in state seem never-ending. The ludicrous hyperbole, which state radio blares out of PA systems, is reminiscent of the ultra-Stalinist regime in North Korea.
Fascinatingly, Loznitsa intersperses the film of the Moscow events with footage from elsewhere in the Soviet Union. This ranges from Ukraine and the Baltic countries to the central Asian republics. Everywhere, one senses the same mix of compelled mourning and genuine grief.
That many people were truly devastated by Stalin’s death should come as no surprise. They lived under decades of relentless propaganda about the supposed selflessness and “genius” of their leader. The unimaginable suffering—27 million people, military and civilians died—and ultimate victory in Second World War served to bolster Stalin’s personality cult.
In one particularly interesting section of the film, we see dignitaries from the Stalinist puppet states of Eastern Europe arriving by plane for the funeral. The scene becomes even more bleakly comic when a welcome is announced to the central committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
Loznitsa enhances the impact of his movie with the occasional addition of film colouring and the insertion of subtly appropriate sound and music. The cumulative effect of the filmmaker’s extraordinary work is both hypnotic and thought provoking.
In 1961, on the orders of Khrushchev who denounced the “personality cult” of Stalin, the dictator’s body was disinterred from Lenin’s mausoleum. It was buried in the necropolis at the Kremlin.
However, Khrushchev’s efforts to appear like an anti-authoritarian reformer don’t stand up to scrutiny. It was he, after all, who put down the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 with a brutality that he learned from Stalin himself.
State Funeral is currently available on the online streaming service Mubi and in selected cinemas
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